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Georgetown University, Washington DCSelecting a university thousands of miles from home where you will likely study for four years might feel like a daunting task — but let’s call it exciting!

Inevitably, your research will begin on the internet. Many universities provide virtual tours of their campuses and descriptions of student life and the services available to international students. And just like in the UK, there are well-established websites (Good Schools Guide Education Consultants included) and rankings to be pored over. More informally, sites like College Confidential (American’s version of The Student Room) enable current students to tell it like it is and are a great place to ask questions. 

Visit US universities

USA College Day, held in London every September, should not be missed. It’s a fantastic (and free!) way to meet representatives of over 150 universities, hear their spiels and ask detailed questions. College Day even includes an ‘application bootcamp’ featuring talks from experts with tips on applying.

But nothing beats an in-person visit. If finances and time allow, then it’s worth quite a lot of trouble to visit your short-listed universities in advance of applying. Not only will it help you decide where to apply, it also looks good on your application: many universities specifically ask if you have visited in advance. If they don’t, it’s still a nice tidbit to throw into an admissions essay to convey your genuine interest.

If visiting in advance is not possible, then do make sure to go, by hook or by crook, once you know the places where you have been accepted. It’s never wise to sign on the dotted line and cough up a deposit without seeing the goods. 

Academic goals

What do you want to study and how many requirements outside your major can you tolerate? US universities tend to be flexible, but almost all will require you to take classes in subjects outside your main field of study, even if they are subjects of your own choosing. It’s worth finding out the uni’s policy on this and whether eg they may accept A level biology in place of a science requirement. 

Websites like US News, Niche and College Raptor publish rankings by particular majors. While these should be taken with a super-sized scoop of salt (that they all differ is a hint that these rankings are more sorcery than science) they can provide an initial steer.

If you plan on majoring in a field that will have a professional examination or required affiliation once you return to the UK, ask the UK professional body how the US degrees you are looking at will be viewed. You may be required to take additional coursework or sit an examination, and it is best to know this in advance.

What do US universities look for in a British student?

US unis are interested in a student’s entire profile. This includes extracurricular activities like sport, music and drama, community service and, especially, leadership. Captaining a sports team, being prefect at school, or leading an orchestra all count for a lot in US admissions.

Not everyone is destined for the Ivy League. So, it’s important to make a detached appraisal of your qualifications and achievements if you want to create a realistic shortlist. Being ‘really, really smart’ (as one mum described her son to us) is not enough. Most US universities are very familiar with GCSEs, A levels and the IB Diploma and appreciate their brutal clarity. Top unis will want to see top marks, just as they do in the UK.

How much does it cost to study at a US university?

Uni in the USA is seldom going to be the cheapest option, but prices do vary. At the top end, a four-year undergraduate degree could cost as much as £180,000. Ivy League universities average out closer to £140,000 but many alternatives are far cheaper. Bear in mind that in addition to the top line ‘tuition’ cost, there will also be housing, meal plans, health insurance and other fees.

Look for cheapish options — you can find lists of ‘best value’ or ‘best price’ unis online. Investigate whether you might qualify for a scholarship — there is a particularly rich vein of British students being awarded sports scholarships to US unis for everything from rowing to water polo. Some top institutions, like Harvard, Yale and Princeton offer means-tested financial aid to international students on exactly the same basis as they do to US citizens. If you get in, they will offer you the financial assistance to make attendance possible. You can find a list of these colleges on the Study International website.

If you really want bargain basement, consider starting at a two-year community college and then transferring to a more expensive university. Or go for a UK degree that allows you to spend some time in the States like Exeter’s BA English with Study in North America or Lancaster’s BSc Geography/North America.

Lifestyle Considerations

Having narrowed down your list to well regarded, realistic and affordable unis, logistics and lifestyle considerations come into play. If you plan to travel home to the UK frequently, then a base on the east coast will make your four years of travel cheaper and less gruelling. You may also want to consider climate. You may have enjoyed your Easter break in Florida, but are you prepared for the summer heat or lack of a winter? Or you may think you like snow, but are you prepared to have to shovel your way across campus arctic conditions while studying in Buffalo?

Similarly, you may want to interrogate your soul over whether you prefer an urban or rural setting. While it may be exciting to think of yourself in a great city, the costs of living there are often much higher. A rural or suburban location may seem dull, but may have more campus-based activities and offer a better social experience. Size also matters. If you attend a very small college, will seeing the same 500 people every week be too insular for you? Will you feel like a number if you are one of 60,000 at a large public university?

Finally, it’s worth checking out your shortlisted colleges office for international students and the number of such students in attendance. While some enjoy being the lone ‘foreigner’ and having to fend for themselves, others find comfort in having a well-run place to go when homesick or confused and others with whom to share the same dilemmas.


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